Kernel Rating: 4 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 103 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 8+. Inspired by Celtic folklore and by the historical occupation of Ireland by the British, this film follows two girls: one is the daughter of a wolf hunter who is tasked with killing the wolves in a forest so that the village can take over and industrialize the land, and the other is a wolfwalker, whose soul can leave her body while she sleeps and materialize in the body of a wolf. The two girls form an unlikely friendship, and the daughter of the wolf hunter changes her father’s attitude about subservience ensuring survival. There are many scary animated sequences, including wolves and humans chasing and fighting each other and wolves biting humans; wolves are captured and caged; the use of weapons, including crossbows and a canon, are shown; children bully and threaten each other; the leader of the village is a fascist who insists on authoritarian rule; a few characters seem to die before being brought back to life; one character actually does die by plunging to his death off a cliff.
By Roxana Hadadi
Filmmaker Tomm Moore is committed to telling stories about his native Ireland, and he follows up his previous animated movies—the gorgeously realized and emotionally resonant “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea”—with “Wolfwalkers.” This beautifully realized film about friendship, family, and the responsibility we owe to the natural world transports viewers to the Irish village of Kilkenny (where Moore grew up) during its occupation by the English in the 1600s. The village is changing, becoming more industrialized and more brutal, and the customs and traditions as they used to exist are being snuffed out. Who will remember them, and who will ensure that they survive?
“Wolfwalkers” begins with an opening sequence that demonstrates the irreversible destruction of modernization: In a verdant forest, a bird bathes itself in a pond, a squirrel chews on a nut, rabbits frolic, and a deer with a gigantic rack of antlers stands majestically in a clearing. Then, an interruption: an axe chops down a tree, and it’s the first of many. The trees are all cut down. The forest is destroyed. The animals have no food and no homes, and flee from the place that once shielded them from humans. Everything is either barren or obliterated, and the humans move in. The land is what they wanted, and this large-scale ruin is what they’ll enact to get it.
As the forest outside Kilkenny disappears, the leader of the village, the cruel Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (voiced by Simon McBurney), wants to wipe out the wolf pack that has made the forest its home for years: “This wild land must be civilized,” he says. So he summons fellow Englishman, the hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), to the village, and single father Bill brings along his daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey). Robyn dreams of hunting alongside her father, of spending her days in the woods and in the natural world, but in Kilkenny, she’s stifled. Cromwell sends her to the kitchens to serve as a scullery maid. He forces her into servitude. And Robyn’s father, believing that subservience and obedience, agrees to kill the wolves and also agrees that Robyn should be stifled and forced to work. It’s for her own protection, he says, but his motivation is primarily fear.
What Bill doesn’t know is that Robyn has already made a new friend in the woods: the wonderfully spontaneous, nearly feral young Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), a young girl with a wild red mane and a family of wolves who accompany her anywhere she goes, and with whom she can communicate. Mebh Óg is a wolfwalker, and at night, her soul manifests as a wolf and she is able to run around in lupine form; her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kenned) is the leader of their pack. Mebh Óg is adventurous in all the ways Robyn is not and free in all the ways Robyn is not, but she knows that things are changing. Her mother has been missing. The wolves are being attacked more and more often by humans. And although Robyn agrees to help Mebh Óg find her mother, they’re both still children. What can they really accomplish in the face of such violence and bigotry?
Like Moore’s preceding films, “Wolfwalkers” is frankly staggering to look at it. The 2D animation is a riot of color, its characters—both animal and human—full of life, and its scenes a fantastic balancing act of size and scale. The wolves seem gigantic, their golden eyes and frothing fangs both huge, until Robyn befriends Mebh Óg and learns their personalities. Lord Protector Cromwell is a terrifying force on his horse, his imposing figure making even the broad-shouldered Bill cower in comparison. And Robyn and Mebh Óg are delightful contrasts: the former’s primness hiding her steely desire for freedom; the latter’s wildness hiding her fragile desire to be loved. Their friendship is the film’s beating heart, and “Wolfwalkers” is built around the girls’ bond and how far they’ll go to save each other.
Some of the film’s more historical elements might go over younger viewers’ heads; a lengthy scene that focuses on Cromwell making an example out of a certain wolf is increasingly tense; and even as the wolf characters become more familiar when surrounding Mebh Óg, they’re still legitimately scary in a few moments. But don’t all the best fairy tales have a certain amount of fear along with the wonder they offer? “Wolfwalkers” delivers both in one of the most visually unforgettable and narratively engrossing animated films of the year.
“Wolfwalkers” is streaming on Apple TV+.